The scientific tourist #239 — a trip through the Sternberg Museum of Natural History

Let’s say you were driving across Kansas on I-70. And let’s say you were bored out of your skull.

But I repeat myself…

Bottom line — should you ever find yourself in the middle of Kansas, you’d be well advised to take a break in Hays, if only to spend some time at the Sternberg Museum of Natural History (a project of Fort Hays State University).  You’ll enter through the glass doors under the overhang; the rectangular building hosts classrooms and lecture space (and the ticket desk), but the good stuff is under the dome.

The Sternberg Museum

Outside, looking in

The museum itself is just off the side of the highway, although it requires a bit of maneuvering from either of the two closest freeway exits.  In any event, the museum is surrounded by low-slung structures, so its easy to spot (and there’s no shortage of signs for it on I-70).  Back in the Mid-to-Late Cretaceous, Kansas was on the bottom of the Western Interior Seaway, a large inland sea that split North America in two.  As a result, the Sternberg Museum (as is the case with a number of museums in Kansas) has lots of good fossils of Cretaceous sea life.

Sternberg lobby

An airborne Pliosaur awaits you in the lobby

You’ll enter through a very generously sized lobby, with this toothy fellow (Brachauchenius lucasi — his skull is a foot longer than T-Rex’s) waiting for you overhead.  Gift shop’s to the left, ticket desk and restrooms are right in the middle — get your ticket and head on through behind it, and you’re into the museum proper.

BTW, the gift shop closes an hour before the museum — so stop first in the gift shop if you arrive later in the day.  Once you have your ticket, you can take either stairs or an elevator to the second floor.

Sternberg museum panorama

The main gallery, in the round

The majority of the museum (at least, the exhibit space) fills the dome you saw from the highway.  There’s a raised display in the center of the dome (note its palm trees to the right of center in the above photo), the cave-like area underneath it is being fashioned into a spot for exhibits.  The “ring” of space around this core is split roughly 50/50 between permanent exhibit space (on your left as you enter the dome), and room for a traveling exhibit (on the right).  I’d suggest you go left as you come up the stairs / elevator and head through the permanent exhibits.


The marquis attraction

The main attraction at the Sternberg (at least, judging by internet links and museum merchandise) is the “Fish-Within-A-Fish.”  Thought to be the most-photographed fossil in the world, this captures a rather peculiar moment in time.  The larger fish (a Xiphactinus audax, just over 13 feet long) swallowed a smaller one (a Gillicus arcuatus, about 6 feet long) whole, then apparently died fairly suddenly — most likely, the Xiphactinus‘ dinner continued to thrash after being ingested, and caused fatal internal injuries in the process.

The big discovery

The discovery of the “Fish-Within-A-Fish”

Xiphactinus was the largest bony fish of the Late Cretaceous, and a voracious predator (a number of their fossils have been found with partially digested prey in their stomachs).  They died out when the seaway dried up some 65 million years ago.  This particular fossil was excavated in 1952 by George F. Sternberg, for whom the museum is named.  A diorama next to the fossil shows Sternberg’s discovery of the unique find.  Note that it’s mirror-reversed from the fossil — the diorama shows (logically enough) the discovery of the top of the fossil, while the Fish-Within-A-Fish on the wall shows the fossil’s bottom.  The top side was cleaned in the field, then covered with a layer of plaster to protect it; the plaster became the fossil’s background when it was subsequently flipped over and prepared for display.

After you thoroughly check out this pair (there’s a nice video showing the history of the fossil), wander through the permanent exhibit displays of other Cretaceous Kansas critters, and check out the traveling exhibit in the other half of the torus.  After that, it’s up the ramp to a display of full-size dinosaur replicas.

Good advise

Always good advice

I’ll be discussing more of the individual exhibits within the Sternberg in future “scientific tourist” posts, so stay tuned — in the meantime, know that it’s a great way to spend a few hours should you be in the “neighborhood!”

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